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Kante the Orchestrator: The Athletic’s new analysis explains his changing Chelsea role

What is N’Golo Kante for Chelsea? In the early years of his Stamford Bridge career, the lazy (and incorrect) answer posited that he was the new Claude Makelele. Last season, Thomas Tuchel offered his own player comparisons: “He is our Mo Salah, he is our Virgil van Dijk, he is our Kevin De Bruyne. He is simply that player, he is our Neymar and Kylian Mbappe.”

Perhaps the best answer is that since his arrival from Leicester City in the summer of 2016, Kante has been a generally excellent version of whatever a distinct succession of Chelsea head coaches have needed him to be — and using The Athletic’s new player roles analysis, the evolving nature of his contribution can be more clearly defined.

The analysis provides a more detailed view of a player’s tactical role, driven by the quantifiable actions that they make on the pitch rather than subjective positions that are dictated by starting formations. A midfielder for one team might be asked to perform a totally different role compared with a midfielder for another team, so it seems unfair to lump them into the same category. This analysis looks to overcome those issues and provide clarity on a player’s remit on the pitch.

So, what did we do? Put simply, The Athletic has developed its own unique set of 18 player roles across the pitch using StatsBomb data (via FBref), which covers players from the big five European leagues over the last five seasons.

This is presented across six overarching roles (eg, deep midfielders, advanced midfielders), before then being broken down into three further categories for each one (eg, Builder, Distributor, Box to Box). This separates Rice from Kimmich, and Tchouameni from Fabinho.

It might surprise you to learn that Kante is classified by the analysis as an Orchestrator: a player who prefers midfield circulation to finding the final ball, who likes shorter, higher-percentage passes, but who isn’t afraid to do some defending. That hasn’t always been the classification, so let’s see how Kante’s categorisation has changed over the past five seasons:

The wildly fluctuating numbers underline how profoundly Kante’s role has shifted under different coaches. His current brief, as one half of Tuchel’s “double six” midfield pivot, most closely resembles what he was asked to do on the right of a midfield three by Maurizio Sarri — another coach who emphasised similar principles of high pressing and prolonged ball possession in the opposition half.

There is also a notable similarity between Kante’s statistical profile in 2017-18 (Antonio Conte’s second and final season at Chelsea) and 2020-21 (when Tuchel replaced Frank Lampard in January): though primarily a Box to Box presence, his contribution also contains significant elements of the Builder (the main circulation hub in the build-up and a stopper at the base of midfield) and the Distributor (a midfielder who favours longer passes and switches, and is more active in the opponent’s half than their own).

It’s interesting to note that the purest Box to Box version of Kante could be seen in 2019-20, Lampard’s full season as head coach. Chelsea’s starting formation shifted between 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3 and 3-4-3 over that campaign but the Frenchman’s lower position without the ball remained relatively consistent, and can be seen here during a 2-0 away win over Tottenham Hotspur

Kante can’t stop the pass through to Harry Kane in the left channel, but he darts back into the penalty area and times his intervention perfectly to hammer the ball off the striker to safety.

Lampard tried to tap into the destructive instincts and unflashy ball progression that Conte had maximised in Kante two seasons earlier. Here, in the first half of a clash with Manchester United at Stamford Bridge, his pressure forces Eric Bailly into a rushed pass that turns over the ball…

… and when Tiemoue Bakayoko controls the ball and looks up, Kante is off and running upfield…

… but when he receives the ball approaching the halfway line, he opts for a safer pass right to the feet of Cesc Fabregas rather than trying to find Eden Hazard or Alvaro Morata ahead of him:

Sarri changed Kante’s role pretty drastically, tasking him with winning the ball back higher up the pitch and taking up much more advanced positions when Chelsea had the ball. You can see it in Sarri’s first Premier League game, a 3-0 away win over Huddersfield Town, as Kante recovers a loose ball well over the halfway line and assesses his options:

He eventually picks a safe pass back to Cesar Azpilicueta, but doesn’t retreat…

… instead advancing further ahead of the ball towards the right touchline as Azpilicueta recycles possession:

Tuchel has likewise weaponised Kante higher up the pitch, both as a turnover menace and as a more advanced midfielder empowered to make the play with direct passes and runs. Here, in the second leg of Chelsea’s comprehensive Champions League semi-final victory over Real Madrid in 2020-21, he flicks the ball around the corner away from incoming pressure…

… before beating another opponent to the ball and initiating a one-two with Timo Werner…

… and freezing Eder Militao before slipping in Kai Havertz, whose attempted chip cannons back off the crossbar onto the head of Werner for Chelsea’s opening goal:

Kante has never registered more than five assists across all competitions in a single season, and he clearly isn’t ever going to be the primary playmaker in a great team. He has, however, proven himself over six years at Chelsea to be capable of destruction, control and creation. The shifting numbers illustrate the rounded nature of what he provides, and it’s easy to see why Tuchel reveres him so ardently.

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